Thursday, January 22, 2015

AX IN HAND by Peter Nolan Smith

My mother had spent her honeymoon on Bermuda. Every winter my parents had vacationed in the Caribbean and each July my father rented a Harwichport cottage for a week. My mother loved the ocean.

On summer weekends they loaded his six children into the Ford Station wagon for a drive to the beach. Massachusetts had a long coastline and the beaches were many. I liked Horseneck Beach to the south of Fall River. Sand dunes shielded the Westport River from the Gulfstream. Endless eddies rippled with the whim of the tide and breeze. Days lasted long around the solstice.

My older brother preferred dirty old Wollaston Beach. It was fifteen minutes from our suburban tract nestled under the Blue Hills. Frunk liked the fried clams at Tony's and we dove with delight off the corroded concrete platform into the tepid stream of sewage gushing into the bay. The sun tanned our pale skins gold and bleached our hair to blonde. The 1960s was a good time to be young in America.

What we liked was unimportant.

My mother swore that Nantasket Beach was the best beach in the world.

As always she was right.

Mothers sat on slow-rise lawn chairs, while their toddlers waded in the shallows. My father was a good swimmer. My older brother and I followed him past the waist-high swells out to the curling surf. Passing waves lifted us off our toes in defiance of gravity. We rode the surf to shore and waved to my mother before heading back out to sea.

The setting sun signaled time to leave the beach, but not Nantasket.

Across Nantasket Avenue Paragon Park filled the narrow peninsula. The candy shops sold saltwater taffy. Numerous restaurants served franks, fried clams, steamers, schrod, and lobsters to the hungry masses. After dessert children pleaded with their parents to delay the return home.The golden gates of Paragon Park spoke one word.


Paragon Park lay within golden gates. Our spines tingled with terror, hearing the ancient cars rattled down the steep tracks of wooden roller coaster. Our school friends said that at least ten teenagers died on the ride every season. The Mery-Go-Round's pipe organ played 20s music and screams from inside the Whirl-About set sneaker feet to running. Refusal was not within our parents' hearts and my brothers and sisters were blessed with many a good time at Nantasket Park.

Sadly our love was destined to last forever.

As my older brother, sister, and I entered our teens in the mid-60s, Nantasket answered our search for thrills at the Surf Nantasket Ballroom, the South Shore's premier rock club. WMEX's Arnie 'Woo-Woo' Ginsberg had spun 45s at Friday night sox hops in the 50s. The owners had sensed the changing of the guard and switched their format to rock bands in the 60s. The Rockin' Ramrods were the house band and teenagers from as far away as Brockton traveled to see other local groups such as Techniques and the Pilgrims.

Headliner shows featured the Kingsmen, the Ventures, The McCoys, The Left Bank, Tommy James and the Shondells, The Turtles, The Swinging Medallions, and even the Doors. The owner Bill Spence paid the bands right and they gave their all on stage.

Before my older brother was issued his driver's license, my father drove the three of us down for the Saturday Night dances. Our station wagon had room for our friends. My father were dropped at the door and said he would meet us at the closing hour of 11. None of us ever asked where he went while were there.

We eagerly climbed the stairs and paid our $2 to the cashiers. No one entered for free. Security consisted of some old guys, the coat check was to the left, and the bar to the right only offered sodas.

My girlfriend never came to the Surf. Kyla had to babysit her younger brother, while her divorced mother went out of dates. I danced with other girls. They knew about my going steady and thought that I was safe. If only they knew what went on inside my head. They were Italians from Dorchester, Irish from South Boston, Jews from Quincy, Wasps from Scituate, and blacks from Roxbury. The security tried to segregate the ballroom by towns, ages, and race.

Like the buses in the South blacks were forced to the rear of the hall, but we soon became friends with the Torres Brothers from Mattapan and the Williams from Randolph, because they and their friends were the best dancers at the Surf and good dancing got the best girls.

The DJ played Top 40 from the R&B and Rock charts.

The Torres brothers took me to see Otis Redding and James Brown in Boston. My father drove us to those shows. My mother never worried about us with him behind the wheel, but once my older brother received his driver's licenses in 1967, we retired my father from the Surf run, although my mother stayed up until the garage door opened and we kissed her good-night.

The shows finished at 11:00. Our curfew was at 12:30. The ride home included a stop at the MacDonald's on the Quincy's Southern Artery.

"Are you coming?" I asked the Torres Brothers after a concert by the G-Clefs, who were Boston's best soul band.

"No, we don't think that's a good idea." Jose shook his head coming down the stairs. "Our father doesn't want us to get into trouble."

"What kind of trouble can you get into eating a cheeseburger?"

The Surf never had any fights. The management banned trouble-makers after one incident. Everyone came there to dance, meet girls, and listen to music.

Tough kids hung out at the Rexicana Ballroom in Marshfield.

"All types of trouble." His brother was a big boy. He played football for Boston Tech. Errol sounded scared. "We're black and everyone in Quincy is white."

"This isn't Mississippi."

"What about the riots in Roxbury last summer?"

"I heard about them."

"But you didn't see anything."

"Buildings and stores burned for three days around Dudley Station."

"There were riots all over America last summer." Boston's uprising was nothing in comparison to the battle in Newark in which 26 people were killed by police and thousands arrested for burning and looting.

"And for a good reason. How many black people live in your town?" Jose asked with a secretive hush. "I'll tell you how many. The US Senator and some brothers pretending to be Indians. Maybe twenty people out of a population of 16,000. If that's not segregation, then I'm a Choctaw Indian off the reservation."

A horn beeped at the curb. My brother was in a hurry. He was hungry.

"I understand the numbers, but we're not like that." I meant my brother, sister, and our friends.

"Then you're race traitors and they hate you almost as much as they hate us." Jose didn't have to say who 'they' were.

"Sorry." A black boy from Roxbury attended my Catholic high school on an academic scholarship. His name was Bunker. His nickname was Boon. A senior had given it to him saying, "It's only one letter removed from coon."

"Ain't your fault. Just the way the things are. See you next week. We're going to Simco's at the Bridge."

The famous frypit on the Blue Hills Avenue demarcated Boston's apartheid border. After dark north of the railroad bridge was known as VC territory to the teenagers in my hometown across the Neponset River. Milton was 99.999% White.

"Next week." The Techinques were the top-billing the following Friday.

I got in the station wagon and my brother asked, "What were you talking about with the Torres?"

"I wanted them to join us at McDonalds."

"And they said no, I hope." He looked over his shoulder at the two brothers. They were waiting for their father, who worked for the Boston Police. Their old man drove a Delta 88.


"Good. They don't want any trouble and that's all they would find in Quincy."

"Are people that racist?" I was a fifteen years-old.

"People didn't want Senator Brooke to move into our town." The GOP senator lived in a mansion next to the golf course. The first black senator ever to be elected to the Senate wasn't rocking the boat, having learned the lesson of his white Democratic opponent's open support of the Civil Rights.

"Because he condemned the Black Panthers." Race politics were not on the senator's agenda, having stated after his 1967 election "I do not intend to be a national leader of the Negro people."

"Doesn't matter. He's black." That should have been the end of the conversation, except in the rear of the car Chuck Manzi said, "Are you siding with the blacks?"

"I guess so."

"Then some people will call you a nigger lover."

"And those people will have a problem."

Having been beaten by bullies in grade school, I was good with my fists and had a name for fighting against thugs from Southie and Wollaston.

Throughout the winter of 1968 I met the Torres brothers several times at Simcos. They bowled at the Lanes and drank beer at the Little Brown Jug. The bartender was kind to white boys with a $20 bill.

The afternoon matinees at the Sugar Stack were special, but I knew enough to get going after a certain hour. Jose and Errol called them 'mau-mau time'. It was fun hanging out with them and I told Chuckie about my excursion into Roxbury.

"You should come with with me."

"No way." Chuckie shook his head with vigor. "I know my place."

"We don't have any 'place'."

"Keep thinking that." Chuckie had knocked up his girlfriend. They were having a baby. Next year he was dropping out of our school to attend the town high school. Sixteen was a tough age to hate the world. "I learned my lesson the hard way."

After that conversation Chuckie hung out with townies. Two of them were the bullies from 7th Grade. Joe and Mark were two years older than us. They had each done a year at Billerica Correctional. They drove stolen cars as a profession and for once I obeyed my mother's edict about avoiding bad company.

In April I developed strep throat. My temperature raced into the 100s, I suffered severe headache, and nothing stayed in my stomach. My school banned me from attending classes and my mother quarantined me from my brothers and sisters. She forced me to drink vanilla ice creamginger ale sodas. I puked them too, but at least they tasted as good coming up as going down.

"You have mono." Chuckie accused me of getting from kissing disease. Mono was easier to say than Mononucleosis or strep.

"Kyla doesn't it." I was only allowed to speak to my friends through a screen door. "And the doctor said I have strep not mono."

"Maybe you got it from someone else." Chuckie laughed because everyone thought that I had gotten mono from my girlfriend, which meant she had gotten it from someone else.

"There is no 'someone else'."

Kyla and I were going steady. The head cheerleader was saving 'it' for our wedding. She was worth waiting for. "And I don't have mono."

"Yeah, right, you probably got it from kissing nigger girls in Roxbury."

"What'd you say?" Chuckie and I had been friends since the first day that my family moved into the neighborhood.

"Only what other people are saying?"

"What are they saying?" I stepped out of the house onto the steps. I was wearing PJs.

"That once you go black you never come back." Chuckie backed up, saying the age-old adage.

"Get this straight in your head." I was furious with him. "You have a big mouth. I never kissed any girls other than Kyla and two I don't like that word."

"What word?"


"Joe and Mark were right. You are a nigger lover."

"Fuck you and fuck them." I was bigger and stronger than the twelve year-old who they had beaten up every afternoon in 1964. "And you can tell them that."

Chuckie looked hurt. I was too pissed at him to apologize and I wasn't sorry for what I said.

That weekend I suffered a relapse from the strep. My fever topped out at 103 and broke on Saturday. I had lost fifteen pounds in ten days. Kyla stopped by my house with brownies. She looked sweet in her tasseled vest and mini-skirt.

"Don't you dare come close."

"It's not fair. I'm almost better." I wanted to kiss her almost as bad as eat a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon.

"I'll be the judge of that." She drove away with Chuckie's girlfriend headed to Wolaston Beach. Tony's was opening for the season. Everyone was having a good time, but me. At least she had said nothing about mono.

My mother came up to me. She had been gardening in the front yard. Her hands were dirty.

"How about a ice cream soda. A real one. I'll get it from the Mug." The Mug was the diner on Route 28.

"And something to eat." I didn't have to tell her what.

"That's a good sign." My mother loved to see her children eat.

She drove off with my two younger brothers and I sat on the steps waiting for her return.

This would be my first meal in days.

I was the only one at home. My father was working the weekend. With six kids he could use the extra money. My older brother was at his job as a busboy in a nearby hotel. My sisters were visiting my aunt in Quincy.

The afternoon was warm for this time of year and the trees in the yard were budding green. I picked up a small ax left by my mother. She had been having a go at a root. I chopped it with a loose hand and the effort left me dizzy. I was not even close to 100%.

A black Corvair Corsa convertible rounded the corner. The two boys were in the red front seat were the Torres Brothers. Joel beeped the horn and parked before the house. I dropped the ax on the grass and approached my friends.

"Nice car." The speedometer went up to 140.

"We got a good buy on it thanks to Ralph Nader. He wrote some book. UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED." Jose was sporting a sizable afro. Black power was in the air.

"Yeah, I heard about it." GM had removed the front anti-sway bar for cost factors.

"It does drive itself sometimes, but Jose and I have gotten used to it." Errol was a little oversized for the compact car and he noticed my assessing the Corvair's disadvantage.

"My father figured it was a fun car and trust me the girls love the wind blowing through their hair. Makes them free and easy like hey are in the back row of the Mattapan Oriental."

"Doesn't get much better than that." The Oriental was the training ground for make-out sessions. The upper loge was pitch-black even during the afternoon matinee.

A V8 engine revved down the street. The three of us turned our heads. A GTO convertible led a procession of three muscle cars.

"Shit." Jose recognized the danger. All the drivers and passengers were white teenagers. "It's the KKK welcome wagon."

"I know these people. They won't do anything here." Mark was driving the GTO. His friend was in the front seat. Chuckie was in the back with another white boy. I walked back to the ax and picked it up to hold behind my back.

"I know these people too." Errol cracked his knuckles. The bridge at Mattapan Square was five miles away. The Corvair wasn't built for speed safe or unsafe. The three of us weren't going anywhere.

"Don't say anything. I'll do all the talking."

"That's what I'm scared of." Jose was peace and love.

"It is what it is." Errol was the business end of the two. He hunched his shoulders like a lineman ready to sack two quarterbacks.

"And it'll be what it was." Vertigo was getting the better of me.


The cars bracketed the Corvair. The drivers and passengers got out with baseball bats and chains. Mark and Joe wore big smiles. Chuckie moved towards his house. This wasn't his story.

"Who's car is this?" Mark tapped the convertible with his hand. "It can't belong your nigger friends. They only drive Cadillacs."

"It don't matter whose car it is. Get going." I wasn't having anyone talked to me like that on my lawn.

"Or what?" Joe stood his ground.

In 7th Grade he had liked punching me, while Mark held my arms. No one ever had taken my back. Things were different today and I whipped out the ax. Joe and Mark jumped back like their feet were burned by lava.

"There is no 'or what'. There is only this." I ran at them and smacked the flathead of the ax through the GTO's windshield. The glass shards scattered into the air. I spun on bare feet.

"Drop the bats. Drop the chains. You'll know know 'or what'." I was crazed with a rabid fever having nothing to do with race or niggers. I hated these these two boys and wanted them dead. I raised the ax over my head and aimed for Joe's head. It never moved forward.

"Slow down. Slow down." Errol had grabbed my arms.

"I'll kill them." Fire burned a riot on the streets of my body. Burning and looting weren't enough.

"No, you won't." Errol wasn't letting me go. "You white boys get back in your cars and drive away peaceful. If not I'll let Maddog at you."


"Yeah, Maddog, I growled through gritted teeth.

"Fucking nigger-lover." Mark spat on the ground and nodded for Joe to get in the car.

"Fuck you both." I fought to get loose. Errol was too strong.

The muscle cars laid rubber. The larger Torres brother let go of me, but not before stripping the ax out of hand. Ten seconds later the stench of latex and the black tracks of their departure were the only mementos of the fracas.

"What happened to talking?" Jose brushed the busted glass off the Corvair with care. Most of it had stayed on the GTO.

"Those two boys and I had a story."

"Like Lizzie Borden?" Errol laughed to break the tension. "She needed forty whack to do her mom and dad. You only got one."

"I needed two." Mark was on my list.

"You got what you got." Jose took out his keys. "After that excitement I think it's time to head home."

"You want me to come with you?"

"No way. We'll see you at Simco's when you're better, Maddog." The two brothers got in the car and drove away.

I swept up the glass.

Chuckie came over to help.

Neither of us said anything.

My mother returned with my sandwich and we went inside to watch the Celtics play the 76ers. Chuckie and I were friends again. Later that summer we went to the 123 Lounge on Blue Hills with his girlfriend and Kyla. The G-Clefs played a ten-minute version of James Brown's PLEASE PLEASE ME. Kyla joined the Torres Brothers on he dance floor, because peace and love was the way life was supposed to be a year after the Summer of Love. We sang to every song and drank Carling beer. Kyla and I kissed in the unlit alley, grinding to the thump of the bass.

"Race traitor." Her finger traced my lips in the blackness.

"There's more than one of us."

"But only one for me."

Our embrace defied time.

Nights like that was too good to last forever, but they can live well into the next century, because in the night there is no black or white TV in the minds of teenagers from the 1960s.

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